Hype over Virgin ‘Hyperloop’?

Jonathan Learmont

In the Nevada desert, start-up company Hyperloop One are developing what they believe to be the mass transport system of the future; the hyperloop. It is based on the idea that ‘pods’ can be shot through a tube that would allow for much higher speeds than are possible with trains.

Magnetic levitation technology, or ‘maglev’, being used in Hyperloop One’s tests is not dissimilar to high-speed trains in how it tries to eliminate the friction of grounded transport using repelling magnets. Small pumps suck air out of the tube, and drop atmospheric pressure inside to the equivalent of 200,000ft above sea level, minimising air resistance when the pod moves. The selling point is that the vacuum like conditions, combined with maglev, could drastically cut intercity travel times. Going between London and Manchester in 22 minutes, or from London to Edinburgh in 50 minutes is an attractive pitch; millions of dollars of investment since the company started in 2014 is indicative of huge excitement surrounding Hyperloop technology. Among those investors is Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, who have become partners in Hyperloop One and are overseeing its advances.

Recent tests at Hyperloop One’s Development Loop (DevLoop) north of Las Vegas have seen an unmanned pod travel at nearly 240mph. It is certainly impressive, given it has been engineered in a matter of months and that this speed is close to a HS2 train’s maximum (250mph). However, such speeds are not even half of the 670mph suggested before Hyperloop is ready to be commercially used. The initial target set by Hyperloop One to start operating a Hyperloop system is 2021, and they have already started viability studies with cities in the US, UK, Canada, Mexico, and India to realize their vision as soon as possible. Aside from getting it up to speed, there are many other hurdles that must be overcome to make Hyperloop a reality.

Long stretches of steel tube work for pods is not much of an issue in the desert, but in linking cities this may prove a roadblock. Two strategies for building Hyperloop in populated areas are: constructing the tubes underground or supporting them above the ground to avoid buildings. In London especially, this presents an enormous problem given the sprawling underground, national rail, and road networks. Crossrail, a project aiming to shorten and ease train travel from the south-east to London, is a recent example of updating transport continually being delayed and is far less ambitious in its plans than Hyperloop. Yet Hyperloop One have recently stated they believe their technology is a viable solution to the struggle of insufficient runways at Heathrow Airport. The theory is that linking Heathrow with Gatwick and Stanstead would effectively allow London’s airports to be grouped together as moving between them would take five minutes. Instead of angering residents near Heathrow with another runway though, it may be that lengthy negotiations are required to convince Londoners that building a large steel tube above the ground won’t affect the value of their house.

Even if Hyperloop doesn’t seem like an immediate development for intercity travel in the UK, it still marks an important innovation and enterprising attitude towards the next step in mass travel. Compare it to another transport innovation that has received a lot of press lately; the self-driving car. While cars that don’t need a driver may allow passengers to be more productive before getting into work, they won’t reduce traffic at peak hours or be able to shorten journeys as a result. Passenger train use between the South East and London has been falling for over a year as more people are able to work from home, and would prefer not to endure lengthy commutes. For those who still travel to cities regularly by car, Hyperloop’stime-savingg quality may tempt them to switch to public transport. This could be hugely beneficial in reducing the UK’s CO2 production if electric or hydrogen fuelled cars are not widely adopted soon. Regardless, populations are expected to continue rising in cities and such cities will need a modern transport network prepared for it. Hyperloop could well be the long-term answer.

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